The house always wins
“Everyone’s doing such a bang-up job, I can’t imagine it won’t be spectacular fun. And I for one can’t wait to see this movie.”
—Julia Roberts, in “HBO’s First Look: Ocean’s
Movie stars. Like so many terminators, they are relentless. They can’t be reasoned with, can’t be bargained with, they don’t feel pity or remorse, or fear. And they absolutely will not stop. But why should they? It’s their job, after all, to be everywhere and be everything, to bring joy to the masses and profits to the few, to appear in movies (of course), on tv, in magazines, in newspapers, in shopping malls. Okay, so maybe they’re not always happy about such promotional excesses—all those talk shows, all those Entertainment Weekly and Premiere covers—but yet, they soldier on.
And in doing so, they earn the thanks of a grateful nation. For, as a nation, we want access. It’s a thrill to see famous people expose themselves to you, to appear “as themselves.” This is why you read magazine interviews and watch talk shows, watch MTV Cribs or ET. Why you watch those chats with Barbara Walters and Katie Couric, Leno and Letterman, even Pink, for MTV (a lovely and nearly convincing trick, in which the young celebrity interviews the established celebrities, and makes you believe she, Pink, is nervous, like you would be… except of course, she has a new CD to hand out to Pitt and Roberts). It’s why you pledge money when movie stars ask for it, or feel an indescribable patriotic union with them. Movie stars do their bit for the cause: they put themselves out there, take public emotional risks, earn your trust.
This desire for access is also the reasoning behind the Ocean’s Eleven auction on the Warner Bros. website, where you can bid for Danny’s Costume or Tess’s Watch. Or, behind the December 2001 Esquire magazine gambit, where George Clooney interviews Julia Roberts, or vice versa: two way-cool movie stars chatting with each other, laughing uproariously and making fun of the process while revealing “themselves” in ways that they would never do for a reporter, because, of course, they care not that the reporter is observing from a distance and will be transcribing the recording afterwards. How clever and self-conscious and radiantly movie-starrish is that?!
The occasion for this interview—and the bijillion other fabulous marketing moments featuring Clooney, Roberts, Brad Pitt, or Matt Damon that you’ve seen in the past month—is, of course, the release of Ocean’s Eleven, Steven Soderbergh’s remake that’s not quite a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack romp in Vegas. The original, as you’ve probably heard, was less a movie than a rationale for the Frank Sinatra and friends Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr., to hang out and get paid at the same time, maybe coinciding with show-dates in Vegas, maybe not. The movie is notoriously not-good, mostly talky and tedious (except when Dean Martin sings Sammy Cahn’s swingy “Ain’t that a kick in the head,” a couple of times), but no one cares because it’s about watching the guys (and Honorary Rat Pack member Shirley MacLaine, for a minute) “be themselves.” (Angie Dickinson plays Sinatra’s girl, but she actually seems to be acting a part, unlike most everyone else in sight: go figure.)
This not-goodness is part and parcel of the first Ocean’s Eleven‘s specific appeal: the film is about your access, your feeling that you’re seeing Frank and Sammy and Dean hang out, improvise, horse around (however this access is contrived). This not-goodness also makes Ocean’s Eleven ideal to redo, because the new version can’t help but be “better,” at least as a movie. And Julia’s right: all involved look like they’re having grand fun and doing a bang-up job. How can the result be anything less than spectacular?
Truthfully, your watching their good time is what’s important. That is, the plot is pretty much irrelevant, even if it is quite a bit changed from the original (both involve a group of eleven men stealing Vegas casino money). Still, here’s the requisite movie-review low-down: As the film opens, Danny Ocean (Clooney), so named to provide the film its hip-sounding title, is getting out of prison, having “paid his debt to society” and feeling ready to resume a life outside. Naturally, he has a vengeance plot in mind, targeting Terry (Andy Garcia), billionaire owner of several Vegas hot spots and the man currently dating Danny’s ex-wife, the splendiferous Tess (Roberts). To win this high-stakes game (and yes, the gambling metaphors run rampant here), he enlists the help of old chum Rusty (Brad Pitt), introduced as he’s instructing a group of pleasant-enough but clueless teen and sorta-post-teen stars to play cards (Joshua Jackson, Holly Marie Combs, Traffic‘s Topher Grace). Clearly, Rusty needs Danny.
More than that, these guys are made for each other, the perfect buddy unit (which makes the other characters not so significant, but they do their best to provide lively, well-acted backdrop). Rusty is practical and exacting, Danny scheming-dreaming, and into Big Pictures. Never mind the little detail that this time, Danny’s Big Picture has to do with “winning back” his ex, thus leaving Rusty at a bit of a loss by film’s end… more about that later. For now, focus on the guys, for this is a guys’ pic through and through. Surely, they’re helped in this effort by Soderbergh’s own great sense of cinematic composition, Stephen Mirrione’s keen editing and David Holmes’ smooth, loungey score. And Vegas, which tends to look better on wide, saturated-color movie screens than it does in person.
The supporting crew ranges in degrees of movie-starness, much like the 1960 movie’s cast did. Danny and Rusty recruit pickpocket Linus (Damon), licensed dealer/Vegas insider Frank (Bernie Mac), sage conman Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), moneyman Reuben (Elliot Gould), munitions expert Bashir Tarr (Don Cheadle, wrestling with one heck of an unconvincing Cockneyish accent), electronics expert Livingston (Eddie Jemison), “grease man,” a.k.a. contortionist Yen (Shaobo Qin), and the driver/mechanic brothers, Virgil (Casey Affleck) and Turk (Scott Caan). All come together to rob the money from three mega-casinos, conveniently stored in one place, the super-well-guarded basement safe of the Bellagio, sure to be extra-specially chucky full on the night of the Lennox Lewis-Wladimir Klitschko heavyweight bout.
This is a nice touch, because the film is all about heavyweights, about clout and how they wield it, about access and how they perform it. And so the metaphor extends. As Clooney tells Roberts in Esquire that although the industry is “male-driven,” she is the inspiring, arousing exception, an old-fashioned “female star” who outshines her male counterparts. “It’s hard.” He says, “For a leading man at times to hold his own against you.” Hence, I suppose, the Eleven: it’s good to have a weighty line-up of guys to make that stand. They make their stand, and they look good. Tess looks less good. I mean, she looks amazing, in flawless costumes and makeup, and Roberts is the Best American Movie Star, after all. But Tess looks lost, plot-wise. She’s got a ridiculous and wholly unbelievable choice to make, which is not in the first film, between Danny and Terry: by the time this becomes the supposed climax in the movie, you might be disappointed.
And so you focus on the boys, because they really seem like they love themselves and one another. You might wish that Frank had a little more to do, because Bernie Mac does charge up whatever scene he’s in, but perhaps he’s still working on his movie star cred. (He wasn’t on the Barbara Walters special, either.) Check the “All American Heartthrob” Pitt on the cover of Vanity Fair: now, this guy knows how to look like a movie star. Even when the news inside is grim, about holy war and anthrax and patriotism, this is how the U.S. manages its nerve, mounts its interests. The background surf, unbuttoned shirt, and look away from the camera—all this demonstrates just how movie-starness is done. The plot, like I say, is beside the point.